There are 3 ways to win on the Mobile AppStore (Part 1)

The mobile AppStores are a mature, saturated market. If you are a newcomer to the space thinking that the space is still full of opportunity, then you’re too late. That only existed from 2008-2011. Since 2012 the space has been a rapidly maturing industry. Innovation is scarce, barriers to entry are higher than ever, and the aim of hitting a top 10 grossing game is a seemingly impossible feat. The winners of mobile have been decided: they have the money, the long funnel, and the users to be able to dominate the top grossing charts.

Launching a game without spending $400K+ in performance marketing or getting a prominent featuring by Apple is a death sentence for your game. Regardless of how good it is. Discovery on the AppStore is no longer free and easy. Don’t expect to get noticed unless you seriously invest in your discovery.

many of the top 10 grossing games have now been on the charts for years. How do you compete with that?
many of the top 10 grossing games have now been on the charts for over a year. How do you compete with that?

So… as a developer in the market, what do you do? How do you deliver great new gameplay to the massive mobile audience without getting overshadowed by the largest developers?

From looking at the top grossing chart for the past 2-3 years I can see 3 clear ways games became a hit. To get enough discovery on the AppStore, it is my opinion to focus on one of these 3 paths. Each are extremely difficult, but each has the potential to make it big.

  1. Feature or Bust: do everything you can to get a feature.
  2. Free to Pay your way to the top: optimize for CPI and LTV. Play the performance marketing game.
  3. Viral Sensation: get lucky and build a game that just blows up on its own.

Today I’ll talk about #1, then i’ll finish off with #2 & #3 next week.

#1: Feature or Bust

It is not in Apple or Google’s best interest that the market is not really innovating any more.
Apple and Google want novel games coming out every week on the AppStore. This drives customers to check the store often. These customers are also more likely to pay for new games to try out.

Apple and Google work hard to fight this trend. They have full control over the discovery on the AppStore, and it is in their best interest to find games that showcase their hardware and give amazing experiences to the players. Games like the Room, Monument Valley, and Leo’s Fortune drive customers to check the AppStore each week. Players love these experiences, and want to find new exciting games.

So one way to go about becoming successful on the AppStore is working as closely as possible with the platform owners (Apple or Google) to ensure the best possible featuring. Create a game that has a novel mechanic, looks beautiful, and showcases the hardware.

This all sounds like an easy choice. Make a game that is good enough that Apple will feature it. But each week over 1000 new games/apps are submitted to Apple. Are you confident that you are the top of all those entries?

Each week seasoned developers from consoles and AAA PC games are porting their famous franchises to the platform. Do you think you’re game is more worthy of the position than the next “Call of Duty” game for iOS? Each week indie developers are launching their games that they’ve sunk 4+ years of their life into working from their garage. Can you compete on quality with these guys? Every week there are bigger and bigger franchises that are launching, so building a new game in this space is not as simple as simply chatting with Apple or Google a few weeks before your launch.

It’s all about Art, Experience & Novelty

To approach this, take a look at some of the games that have been featured by Apple in the last months. Each week there is a new prominently featured game on the AppStore. They are each beautifully done and focused on creating an amazing experience. The bar is set high — Apple will only feature you if you can compete with all the other developers knocking at their door.

Can your game’s mechanics and visual style compete with Threes?

To find out how far you are from getting featured, start user testing your product package (icon & screenshots).

Start by bringing in some external, unbiased players to test your game. Ask them to look at your icon and your screenshots, then compare these to a recently featured game’s. Which would they prefer to buy? If they aren’t completely sold by your game, then think again. Apple only selects the best of the best, so make sure you start off strong — build a strong product identity that showcases what is different about your game right from the beginning. Nail the icon and screenshots before you’ve committed to development. This method will help you focus on the artwork and the communication of your differentiating features. If you can’t communicate why your game is unique and worth playing within an icon and a few screen shots, customers won’t buy your product and Apple won’t feature you.

As Ken Wong presented in his amazing GDC Europe speech, this market model works for games that are focused on creating amazing aesthetic experiences. This is not a model for games that focus on differentiation only in their mechanics. This model hinges on creating a game experience that is incredibly memorable. It should have your whole audience tweeting and celebrating its completion:

From Monument Valley's website : some examples of reviews of Monument Valley
From Monument Valley’s website : some examples of reviews of Monument Valley

But when going with this business model, its important to focus on what matters, and not stretching yourself too thin when delivering the game.

WINDOSILL Windosill is a game that is really the best example of a visceral interface. Each action you do feels alive, organic and interesting. Aim for this feeling when creating the best aesthetic experience.

Focus on simple, intuitive mechanics that promote your aesthetics over complex mechanics that focus on niche audiences or require a high entry barrier to understand the mechanics. Like Windowsill, focus on making everything feel interactive and alive.

Focus on amazing artwork and aesthetic setting. These types of games should be started from a piece of artwork over a simple prototype displaying the mechanics. The story, setting and theme should come first, then mechanics afterwards. Showing potential players early your artwork and videos of your game should excite and build anticipation from players. The artwork should seek to pull players in just by seeing a small percent of the game play. When you’ve got your artwork to the point that its exciting your potential players, then it’s okay to start.

Monument Valley is a short game -- but celebrated as so.
Monument Valley is a short game — but celebrated as so.

The game doesn’t need to be difficult or balanced perfectly. You just need to make sure the mechanic lasts for 2-4 hours on their device. Building a long lasting game will most likely be a waste of content, players on mobile download a new featured game once per week. They like experiences that are bite sized but don’t require hours and hours to fully enjoy. As you can see from the Monument Valley response, the audience is not turned off by the shortness of the gameplay — its seen as a positive point. Don’t attempt to build a full console title worth of content if you don’t need to.

Focus on the Experience, not on Monetization

In my opinion, this path should focus on games that are paid, not free. This is somewhat controversial, because you could make more money if you go free, but free with in-app purchases will push to make design decisions that are bad for your overall experience. Unless you really know what you’re doing, I would always suggest to go paid. You can then focus on what will get you the feature: amazing artwork, intuitive controls, and simplicity. Injecting Ads, In-App Purchases or monetization tricks is not a simple path. There is still a massive audience that is perfectly okay with purchasing games. This audience is looking for novel gameplay and gorgeous artwork, so don’t go half way and deliver an okay experience so you can have your cake and eat it too by trying to squeeze every dollar out of your players.

Keep focused on creating an amazing experience, ditch the free to play.

Ads and interstitials will only hurt your chances of getting featured. Stay focused on the experience, not on the money.
Ads and interstitials will only hurt your chances of getting featured. Stay focused on the experience, not on the money.

Price point for a paid game is a big debate. I would suggest going higher than you think. Featuring lasts between 1 week to 2 weeks. After this window, you will have very little discovery. Making sure you make as much money during this small window is very important. As a feature, players are far less price sensitive. If Apple has featured you, you must be worth the price! After these 2 weeks you can consider doing some promotional pricing. This may stir up downloads, but by that point your discovery will be so small. These price drops will only give you temporary small boosts.

To give you some pointers on price point, I would say $0.99 is only for games that look very simple and is more of a “while riding the subway” kind of distraction (ex. Threes). $2.99-$4.99 should be for games that provide 4-8 hours of content, and look amazing (ex. Monument Valley). $9.99 to $14.99 should be reserved for games that you believe players will get a “console-like” experience from: 10+ hours of fun, amazing graphics, and have a big developer or a big brand to push players over the hump when deciding whether or not to purchase the game.

You won’t be a millionaire

Games that are paid don’t make nearly as much money as free to play games. A top grossing free game makes hundreds of thousands of dollars each day, and usually can float within the top grossing charts for 6 months to over 3 years (Diamond Dash just celebrated its 3 year anniversary on iOS). The typical featured paid game will struggle to make that in its lifetime. Unless you get the editor’s choice and are featured predominantly on both platforms like Threes, Monument Valley or The Room, you will be looking below $1 million in total revenue. So when developing your game, keep in mind the risk of not being featured as well as the likelihood of being able to create a profitable game. Keep your development costs as low as possible. Having a 100+ person studio cranking out paid games is incredibly risky, the likelihood of being able to crank out hit after hit at a fast enough pace is very, very slim. Which is why most major developers have moved to free to play.

Also consider whether a full “games as a service” model works for you. Launching a game, then updating it each month is a big cost. Testing and resubmitting always takes far more time than you think it should. Ensure that the cost of updating your game as well as the amount of hassle to update the game each month is actually worth it to your bottom line. These types of games can be launched then updated only when necessary. Free to Play games are more likely to be updated on a monthly basis.

You don’t need a publisher

Publishers have been fighting for a place in the mobile market for awhile. Publishers made a lot of sense during the console era. During this era they handled communication & certification with the platform owner (Nintendo, Sony). They managed publishing and distribution of your game (shipping the physical package). They had the marketing budgets and contacts required to ensure your game was discovered by players everywhere.

But mobile doesn’t need that. Distribution is free, you can sign up for an account for $100/year to publish with Apple. Marketing and discovery is mostly handled by Apple if you aim for featuring. Certification is all done through apple review. Yet still there have been a few bigger publishers that have grown over the years, most notably is Chillingo. Publishers take between 10% to 30% and offer some help with discover-ability. They usually help mitigate conversations with the platform owners (ex. Apple), can provide support with performance marketing, and sometimes have a sizeable cross-game network to push players from one game to another.

However, you don’t need a publisher to get a contact at Apple or Google. Getting a developer contact at either of these companies is relatively simple, and just requires a little bit of networking. From here, keeping in close contact with them and sending builds and getting feedback from them is usually not difficult and provides great value. It’s in Apple and Google’s best interest that indie developers can work with them. It’s in Apple and Google’s best interest that they have direct communication with developers and that they can identify the best games coming up the pipeline as quickly as possible.

Publishers can help out with discoverability by doing some performance marketing. However if you’re going for a paid game, performance marketing is ineffective. Its more than likely that a publisher will not invest money into performance marketing unless the CPI to LTV equation works. I’ve never seen this work for a paid game. Most publishers never agree to a minimum marketing spend or a minimum users delivered for this reason. You will get the most amount of users from featuring from Apple, so you may as well focus on them. Also many publishers can deliver a ton of users using cross-game networks, but rarely are these users very active or engaged in the game.

Publishers biggest value is to provide consulting and comments on your game while its in development to help you launch it with the best chance of featuring. So if that value makes sense to you, then get a publisher. If you’re already a competent mobile developer that is comfortable with networking with Google and Apple, a publisher is not the best path.

Make it amazing or don’t launch it at all

This goes counter to the previous point. You have a lower ceiling when building this type of game than a free to play game. However, you’re still competing with thousands of other developers each week to catch the attention of Apple, and ultimately the customers. You need to create a game that beats out all other developer’s games by at least some measurable margin. If you miss this mark, even by a little, you risk getting minimally featured or not featured at all. When this happens, all costs up to this point are sunk: all that time you spent developing the game, marketing the game, obsessing over the design and experience is completely worthless. Your game will drop to the bargain bin basement of the AppStore, and is never to be seen by the masses. This is the most difficult part about this mobile market, and the industry as a whole. We are caught in a massive arms race between thousands of game developers. Each developer is seeking to one-up all others to inch themselves closer to this featuring which is absolutely critical for success. Amazing games each week drop to the bottom for the only reason that there are just too many developers attempting this business model. Too many developers are focusing on paid, aesthetically focused games that Apple and Google really have their pick of the litter. In the end the cost of development, and the barrier to entry will continue to rise.

If you choose this path, go full out, or don’t go at all. Focus on creating a game that’s even better than threes, monument valley or leo’s fortune or don’t release at all.

Further Reading

“App Discovery is not Broken” by Eric Seufert
A candid article which outlines the current state of the mobile marketplace. What a mature AppStore looks like.

“Monument Valley: Less Game, More Experience” by Ken Wong
How monument valley was created & an argument that Free to Play doesn’t work for everyone.

Mobile Free to Play: Games that don’t want you to play them

More and more games now are adding modes where players no longer even need to play.

Players can simply open up the app, start a round, flip a switch, then put their phone down. The AI will make all their decisions. The AI will have all the fun while the player waits for the virtual reward at the end of the round.

At first glance, this is worrying. This turns the game into a Skinner box. Tap the button, wait, get a reward. Where is the fun in that?
Instead of making the core battle so boring that auto-mode is necessary, shouldn’t designers seek to add more depth to the battle?


Focusing design on in-depth core game mechanics is a losing battle.
Focusing on making long-term decisions more interesting is a much better strategy for free to play games.

Battles are the Hook

In the RPG Genre, having an interesting battle mechanic provides the hook for the game. This is what draws players in and immerses them in the world. If I have no option of control, then this isn’t really a game.

In Summoner’s War, in the beginning you have choices for each of your players of where they need to attack. This is engaging at first, but quickly goes stale. This isn’t the focus of the game.


When a player starts a battle, they expect to make choices and see their impact. Having novel mechanics in the battle provides early players with a new experience that they have never had before.

Secondly, it really showcases the artwork. Your artwork sets the expectations right from the beginning. A player is only willing to invest in games that feel polished, exciting and professional. Making sure that players experience as much exciting battles in the beginning is important.

However, as they play many battles, inevitably the mechanic will get boring. Inevitably the artwork will get repetitive. There are few games in the history of game design that have ever managed to keep a core game mechanic interesting thousands of times repeatedly (ex. Tetris, Chess, Collectable Card Games). Especially in a non-multiplayer context, in a casual game, and even more in a mobile context where the interaction complexity possible is limited. In theory this could be done, but it would be incredibly difficult.

So how do you keep the gameplay interesting for the long haul while still allowing for a great initial experience?

Bitcoin Billionaire

Bitcoin Billionaire is in a weird genre. I’m not really sure how to label it… It’s part simulation, but mostly an “Endless Progression” style game. Your goal is to try to collect as many Bitcoins as possible by tapping the screen.

Initially there is the appeal of just madly tapping on the screen. Each tap gets you 1 Bitcoin. You strum your fingers across your ipad watching your money go up. You’re so good at this!

But after about 30 seconds this starts to become a bore (also your fingers are getting tired!). So now the game starts to push you into making investments: earn Bitcoins while you’re not tapping.

Bitcoin Billionaire allows the player to invest in revenue while they are away.



What this does is ease the player away from a newly-boring core mechanic into something much more interesting: managing investments and optimizing the rate of progression. Bitcoin Billionaire has done an excellent bait and switch: you came for the tapping, but now you are addicted to buying income sources. Cookie Clicker, Make it Rain, Clicker Heroes and Bitcoin Billionaire are four excellent examples of games that have managed to ease a player from a boring core mechanic into something that is much more interesting in the long haul.

This transition is exactly what all games need to deliver for successful long term retention. So how do we add this to other genres?
Auto-battle is how its been added to the RPG genre. Eventually the game recognizes that making choices in the battle is no longer interesting. The bait and switch becomes making the choices outside the battle more interesting than the battle itself.

But Auto-Battle isn’t a trivial system to add. Like all design decisions it comes with benefits and consequences.
There are 2 questions to ask if an Auto-battle system will work with your game:

Session Design: Auto-Battle or Job system?

Auto-Battle as a system essentially means that a player will make a choice about which “dungeon” to enter, then leave their phone on and come back to it after a few minutes.

Is this valuable to your session design? Players just opening your app for long periods of time? It will effect your KPIs — your session length will go up. But is that really what you want in the design? Successful games push players to return to the game often throughout the day and focus on meaningful choices. So why demand that they keep the app open during the battle?

Job Systems in games have been around for quite awhile. They reached a peak with games like MafiaWars in the early days of Facebook. A player would send their units on Jobs. Tap a button, and the unit would be disabled for a limited time. When the time was up, the rewards for the action were given. This was a nice appointment mechanic that allowed players to opt-in to coming back to the game. If the game was only job systems however, the game grew stale. But what if a Job System replaced the need for auto-battle?

Is artificially extending the session design the best for your session design, or is a job system with longer timers?
Is artificially extending the session the best for your design, or is a job system with longer timers?

What may be more interesting is asking the player to make a choice: Do I send my fighters out without my control for 5 minutes, then return with the loot? Or do I think the AI will mess up this battle, so I should do it manually for the next 10 minutes? This way players can make a choice whether to end their session and come back later, or improve their chances of winning by playing the actual battles manually.

Is there enough depth outside of the battle?

If the game is really distilled down to a few taps each day this can get boring quickly.
Grinding for rewards and items is only fun when there is significant complexity and depth to collecting items.
By adding auto-battle in the game, this will put much more stress on your long-term meta mechanics. Do your players have enough interesting decisions outside the battle that will last for months?

Auto-Battle can only work if you have enough skill and depth in your decisions outside the battle.


Summoner’s War has Relics to provide interesting decisions in how you upgrade your players. Brave Frontier has the boosting and fusing mechanic which provides years of collection and interesting long-term trade-offs. Many games have a very in-depth loot system which makes for interesting decisions choosing which gear to keep.

However, even with a strong loot system with collection, players need an indicator of progress. They need to be immersed in your setting, story and game. Having an auto-mode is great, as long as eventually players will be pushed to an epic boss battle. A battle that surprises them, challenges them, and maybe even progresses the story. This will be necessary wrapper around the grinding that makes it all worth it. These auto-battles end up building anticipation to something new and exciting for the player.

In the end auto-battle lets players focus on the choices and decisions that matter to them, no matter what stage of the game they are in.


Mobile Free to Play: Grinding Sucks, Let’s Fix it

Content pacing is the core of proper long term retention in free to play. In order for players to stick around for months and years, you need to ensure that they are consuming your content at a pace that is healthy. A Free-To-Play designer’s main responsibility is to maximize the player’s enjoyment using the minimum amount of content necessary. In order to do this, many games try to influence the player to replay the same content over and over again. This has coined a term “Grinding”: when a player repeats the same content or level many, many, many times in order to uncover a reward.

The arcades — the only way to reach new content was to progress farther then you ever had before. Making early content endlessly repeatable.


This has been embedded in gaming since the Arcade. Each time a player played an arcade game, they had to play through all the same content over and over again. They played that same content until they finally progressed farther than they had before. In this way, the early game content was played over and over again hundreds of times, but the late game content was an achievement. For developers it meant that they could create a relatively small amount of content, ramp up a difficulty curve and this would gate players effectively from reach the end of the game too quickly.

How does Diablo 3 get away with endless grinding?


During this current era of games, some games just get away with incredibly repeatable content. Diablo is the perfect example. Players are happy to play and replay the same levels, the same bosses, the same content over and over and over again to search for metagame goals. Players seek to find the best loot, build up the best gear, to defeat impossibly balanced challenges in the late game.

But when coming up with new game designs for Free-To-Play, designers can hit issues when trying to stretch out their content. When designers start asking players to repeat over previous content, players always push back.

Why do I need to play through things I’ve already beaten?
Why can’t I just push ahead?

Players start leaving the game because it feels too “grindy”. Or some players believe the difficulty is beyond anything they are capable of because they don’t realise they need to grind to beat the boss. Players see behind the veil and realize that it’s “play this old content for x times or pay” and instead, they choose to leave. For good reason: your system is not interesting or exciting.

There are three core issues that I find can easily be fixed to make grinding more expected:

#1: Players can see a long grind ahead of them

The negative feeling of a grind comes in when a player believes they know exactly how many sessions they will need to play in order to progress. This is usually the precise moment when most players pack up and say this game is too tedious. It’s true: This is when the game becomes a bore. Players are just going through the motions to get an extrinsic reward (ex. currency, item, etc).
To fix this you need to add luck to your progression. Ensure the player can not fully see the time required to progress. Players should always feel a bit of hope: with a bit of luck and some skill, they can progress quickly over the next checkpoint.

To add more luck to your progression systems it’s about adding randomization to your rewards. Create a loot system. Allow the player to randomly get items which speed up their progression (ex. better weapons, better perks). Ensure the player is exposed to this system early and often. This will allow them to gain hope that the grind (even if long) could get much faster at any moment. The more they play, the higher their chances are that they get lucky and progress fast. This also becomes a moments of pride for the player — they are very likely to share their story with other players if they feel they are “cheating” the game by finding rare loot that no one else has.

Adding Loot systems, like Diablo 3's, is a great way to randomize a player's progression speed.
Adding Loot systems, like Diablo 3’s, is a great way to randomize a player’s progression speed.

There are other ways to make progression more exciting. You can also randomize the sources and sinks of your currencies more. If a building cost fluctuates (goes on sale during the week) then players will progress quickly and feel smart for taking advantage of a one-time offer.

Randomizing reward amounts (ex. randomly giving large sums of currency in a round of gameplay) can make the player save up and hope for a lucky round that will really push their progression forward quickly.

If the player can’t see their progression pace so easily, they will hold on to hope that their luck will change. They will feel really smart when they’ve finally collected an epic weapon. Most importantly they will continue to return to the game because the game does not feel like a grind.

#2: Players are not aware they need to grind

Most free to play games put a lot of emphasis on stats. When a player attempts a difficult level, their results depend on whether they equipped good enough gear and how well they played. In Clash of Clans, the whether or not you raid the base depends on how high your level of invading troops are as well as your ability to pick where they start.

Clash of Clans has a balance between Stats and Skill. Placing players in the best possible way won’t guarantee victory unless you’ve got the best troops.


But for a player, figuring out which one of those two was incorrect at the end of a level is very difficult. Did I just not upgrade enough? Or was it where I placed my players?

Some games make this equation really really opaque. Players can’t tell whether they need to upgrade more, or if they just pound away at a level they’ll eventually beat it. This can result in frustration in two ways: players endlessly attempt a level in an effort to beat it when they clearly can’t. Or they believe their skill has no impact and leave the game because it’s too rigged.


CSR and Deer Hunter have attempted to fix this with giving indication before the battle: make sure players are aware that their skill level needs to be very high to win this race, and show that as they upgrade these bars go down. This effectively separates the skill vs stats showing the player before they’ve even played what the chances are they’ll win. Allow the player to bet on their own skill, but give some transparency into how much of the result is actually dependent on their skill!

#3: Grinding is not expected

Saga maps do not promote grinding as part of the core.


Jelly Splash progression is very simple — beat the next level. Jelly Splash has no stats in its progression. It doesn’t need grinding. Why? Because it has so much luck in the level design that players are happy to play the same level over and over and over again in order to beat it. Players are content to grind the same level because of near misses. Players are happy with this — the world map (or Saga map) gives them such clarity as to their progression that it works.

But Saga maps aren’t okay for every game. Players have played with these maps for long time, back since Super Mario on the Nintendo. A World map’s primary purpose is to show off your achievement of progress, and show you how far you need to go. Going back to previous levels? Why would a player ever do that?

Yet in many mobile games, this is how it is done. They provide a world map, and the only way to progress was to grind on the previous level enough times until you had the necessary gear to move forward. This is the only choice, and it gets tiring quickly. There has to be a better design than this.

Again, CSR was the pioneer here. They realised that a world map sends the wrong signals to players. If the only choice your world map is providing is whether to go for the next level or grind the previous level, then you really have too simple of a choice. Instead CSR opted for this view:

By making multiple modes the focus on the map, CSR has made grinding expected.


The key here is that players have multiple modes with different risk/reward which they can choose from. Players can choose based on their skill and their sessions how to optimize their grind. Players can feel smart about the choices they make. Bosses are only one of many options on the map, rather than the full focus of the screen. So players now expect that they will have to race in other modes before they are fully ready to take on the boss. If grinding is expected, then rethink your map design.

To make players feel good about grinding:

  1. Add luck to your progression so it’s not always clear how quickly you’ll progress
  2. Ensure players understand when they need better stats versus improved skill
  3. Make sure your map sets the expectation that grinding is necessary

In the end players will have a proper expectation of your game. They will start making choices to optimize their grind and feel smart about it. When players feel smart about choosing to grind, then you’ve solved the grinding problem.

Mobile Free to Play: What about Player Skill?

Why is it that in the Top Grossing Charts on mobile there are no games with high amounts of player skill?

Where are the Marios? The games that tested your abilities right to the last boss?
Where are the Call of Duties? Games that allow you to play competitively online for hundreds of hours?
Where are the Street Fighters? Games with so much emergence and depth there are books on how to master the controls for the game…

Mobile renditions of these genres may have found a way to get a decent amount of downloads, but none of them have found a sustained spot on the Top Grossing.


In order to be successful in free to play you need to pace a player’s progression so that they can play your game for months.
For a game to enforce slow progression for all player types,  you need to be able to balance with high precision.
The more player skill effects the outcome of your game – the harder this will be to enforce.

How Candy Crush handles Skill

If Candy Crush was balanced to have less luck and more skill, the game wouldn’t be nearly as successful.

For one, it would not have broad appeal. Players without the necessary skill levels would drag behind and leave because of the difficulty, while players of high skill would rip through the content without spending a dime.

Even with 300+ levels, Candy Crush needs to make sure you don’t progress too quickly.

But the major reason why Candy Crush Saga is successful is the way that the game paces its content. Candy Crush has a lot of levels, but with 300+ levels, it still takes you months of engaged play to even dent the map. This stalled speed of progression is exactly what is required to be successful in Mobile Free to Play. A game that lasts for months (better yet, years) with a healthy pace of content to keep players engaged. This drives a strong long term retention: a large percentage of players returning to the game after hundreds of days. This KPI is the most important measure when evaluating a games success, we have seen this time and time again at Wooga.

So how does King do it? How do they pace the content so well so that players only reach the 100th level after playing for a month? They do this by varying up the difficulty. The difficulty of levels is not a steady linear increase like in most classic games. Level 55 is not necessarily easier than level 56, level 100 is not necessarily easier than level 200. In Candy Crush (and all of the games that copied the formula thereafter) there are levels that are meant to be easy, and levels that are meant to be hard. A set of levels are designed as easy to make sure that you have moments when you are loving the game and feeling smart/powerful. However, there are also levels that happen more sporadically which ramp up the difficulty exponentially. These levels are “blocking” levels — they are there to be extremely difficult. These levels are required to convert players to payers (give them reasons to use all those boosts), reinforce that the game is not a cakewalk, and that level progression should be celebrated, (see twitter…) but mostly so that there are levels which have to be played over and over and over and over again before you progress – pacing the content.

Florian Steinhoff did a wonderful GDC presentation about this exact balance when he discussed Jelly Splash : . I’d really recommend watching it if you have vault access.

The problem facing game designers looking to create new genres in Free to Play comes back to Player Skill. How do you build these blocking levels that are so important to your retention & monetization? If a player has a huge influence on the result of the round (whether they progress or not) then balancing for a skilled player versus an unskilled gamer would be impossible. I can beat the new Super Mario Bros. in a few hours, it takes others with less experience years to do the same. How Candy Crush builds these levels is by making the chance of winning, regardless of your skill, low. Like 5 to 10% (sometimes I’ve heard numbers even lower). But isn’t this frustrating? No! Since the game has so little skill (in comparison to other genres), they can balance these levels to make sure that players consistently come close to reaching the goal. Those near misses everyone talks about. These keep the player feeling like they can beat the level, they just need to play a few more times or convert. With higher player skill, this becomes much more difficult to achieve.

Super Mario Saga

So let’s go with a little bit of an experiment. Let’s take a game that has high amounts of skill and try to pace it without resorting to “dumbing down” the mechanics.


Super Mario is a game everyone loves – lets assume (for this experiment) that you could actually get the same level of control and ease of use out of a mobile version of Mario.

To play the game, the player progresses along a map, working between worlds which have unique content in each world. It takes months of time for artists, designers and developers to build each world. We need to try to make this amount of content last for months in the hands of players as well.

First off – we ramp up the difficulty on some levels like Candy Crush did. This will prevent players from progressing too quickly and force them to master the game. However, then we’d have a retention issue. The game only appeals to a small niche, and most players are dropping out because the game is too punishing and unrewarding to play.

So let’s add an upgrade system! You collect coins from playing, and then you can use those to improve the runners abilities to pass those levels. For unskilled players – they can grind on previous levels if they need the boost, but now they can progress! Games like CSR and Deer Hunter do this very well. Players can upgrade their weapons or car to improve their chances of winning. Blocking levels are directly tied to your upgrade level, and grinding is a core part of the game loop. However, in our Mario game we start to get some issues. Compared to CSR and Deer Hunter, there is substantially more skill in our game. So a player beating a level has a lot more to do with their current skill level than over how much they’ve upgraded. Those blocking levels are not forcing you to upgrade at all, it’s just demanding more skill. So in the end we have no control over the pace of skilled players, and unskilled players are forced to grind. No fun.

Here you can see the recommended gear for completing a level. In order to actually ensure a player NEEDS this upgrade -- you need to make sure their skill isn't overpowered and they can beat the level regardless.
Here in the bottom right you can see the recommended gear for completing a level. In order to actually ensure a player NEEDS this upgrade — you need to make sure their skill isn’t overpowered and they can beat the level regardless.

What else can we do?

Tying PVP to your progression is one way that high skill games can pace their content.
Tying PvP (Multiplayer) to your progression is one way that high skill games can pace their content. Ranked Mode in Hearthstone is an excellent example of how to do this.

Games like Hearthstone and Diamond Dash are games of high skill and have performed very well in the Top Grossing charts. These games use Multiplayer PvP to control the player skill. You may be a highly skilled player, but matching you against an equally skilled player and tying the result of this match to your progression allows High Skill games to balance out.

Auto Battle -- for when you only care about the item game, not the battle.
Auto Battle — for when you only care about the item game, not the battle.

Games like Brave Frontier put most of their Skill into the decisions made in the metagame/elder game. The skill from Brave Frontier is not in the battle. Players are asked to mindlessly tap to fight against opponents. In later stages they even have an automated mode when you bore from mindlessly tapping. The skill in Brave Frontier comes from the choices you make as a player about which monsters/fighters you want to upgrade and which ones you take away. These types of mechanics certainly take much longer for players to appreciate and master, but in the end these are the mechanics that drive players to play these games for months rather than put the game down because they’ve bored of the core mechanic.

So what’s your take away? You can say two things –

1. I’m going to be that crazy game designer that cracks this nut. I’m going to go out and design a game with high skill that will dominate the marketplace that has strong retention and amazing monetization to shoot up the top grossing.

2. Or I will sit back with most free to play designers and continue to find ways to subtly water down skill based mechanics so that we can keep players in the game long enough to monetize and turn them into dedicated players.

I strongly believe that the mobile marketplace is maturing. The current marketplace is slowly demanding more skill from their games. Players are becoming fed up with re-hashed mechanics from a couple years ago. Players can see through Candy Crush’s mechanics and are not sticking to these types of games like they used to.

Finding ways to smartly add skill to games will be the key to opening up new genres on mobile.

GDC Europe 2014 : “The Art of Killing Games”

I did a presentation at GDC Europe 2014 talking about “The Art of Killing Games”.

Here is the link to the full video on GDC Vault :

I talk about my experience prototyping and designing new games at Wooga. Specifically how we evaluate new game ideas and ultimately decide whether a game is good enough to launch or not.

My Big 3 Takeaways :

– Never be afraid of stopping a game. Build a culture that embraces that failure is expected when coming up with new game designs.

– For F2P to work, you need to develop a prototype as quickly as possible that proves that it can be fun for up to a month. This is really when the “minigames” are separated from the games that actually have a chance to become a long term hit.

– You can use hard KPI goals during soft launch to quickly evaluate a games potential. You can use this method to make objective decisions about whether a game has potential to become a hit  (rather than endlessly discussing subjective opinions about whether a game is good enough or not)

Hope you enjoy it.

Success on the AppStore

Building games to be a success on the AppStore is incredibly difficult. The mobile marketplace has matured rapidly, and now leaves fewer and fewer opportunities for new developers to reach sustainable revenues or growth.

To be successful, there are 3 clear ways :

  1. Feature or Bust
  2. Free to Play + Massive Marketing Budget
  3. Viral Hit

Beyond this, there are many strategies that can help a developer keep a foothold in the market :

Designing for Touch


Here’s a crash course in designing for touch screen games:

Step 1: Understand the environments that your players are playing in. Understand their limitations.

Step 2: A list of all the different interaction methods on a touch screen, and when to use each one.

Step 3: Some rules of thumb when designing a touch mechanic, like ensure there is only one mechanic running at time.

Mobile Session Design

Mobile Session Design is all about driving addiction from your players. Pacing content while at the same time giving reasons for your player base to always reach for their phones to play your game.

To understand the best way to design mobile sessions, read these posts:

Step 1: Understand flow and the importance of Easy In, Easy Out.

Step 2: Build player commitments to return to your game through timers & social drivers.

Step 3: Drive strong sessions per day with Implicit reasons to come back.

Step 4: Encourage flexible sessions. Make players feel smart about leaving your game.